What's driving Trump's immigrant-bashing?

Lee Sustar untangles the contradictions of the administration's immigration policy.

Donald Trump (Sgt. Alicia Brand | Wikimedia Commons)

NET IMMIGRATION from Mexico is negative, and unemployment is at the lowest point in a decade. Yet Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions justify the biggest crackdown on immigrants in decades in the name of "hiring American"--in an effort to win white working class support on a racist basis.

It's the latest example of the chronic criminalization and mass deportation of immigrants in the U.S.--and it poses an acute challenge for organized labor at a point when unions are at their weakest in nearly a century.

Basically, Trump is offering a deal to both labor and capital.

For employers, the deal is this: Tolerate my immigrant-bashing to meet my political requirements, and I'll deliver higher profits by slashing regulations, cutting taxes and quietly supporting efforts to weaken unions by right-wing judges. Trump has further linked the crackdown on immigration to the reassertion of U.S. imperial power by seeking to impose a ban on travel from six majority Muslim nations.

As the Council on Foreign Relations noted, U.S. business as a whole is reliant on immigration.

Some 17 percent of the workforce is comprised of immigrants, and many sectors have come to depend on a regular flow of labor from abroad, with or without documents. This has been the case in agriculture (33 percent), manufacturing (36 percent) and accommodation (45 percent).

At the other end of the labor market, the labor shortage in information technology means that tech jobs are heavily dependent on immigrants from India, China and other Asian countries. At Facebook and microchip maker Qualcomm, for example, some 15 percent of workers are on H-1B visas that provide temporary legal status for skilled workers.

This is why Corporate America prefers a version of immigration reform that would stabilize the situation. Many businesses favor a guest worker program that would keep foreign-born labor available and wages low--workers without full citizenship rights are less likely to organize unions.

Silicon Valley bosses favor the same approach to tech talent: an expansion of the H1B visa program that allows them to recruit skilled workers. If this puts downward pressure on tech salaries, so much the better.

But the problem for employers is that the leading party of U.S. business, the Republicans, has increasingly played to the racist right on the question of immigration.

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IN 1986, President Ronald Reagan championed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which included qualified amnesty for undocumented workers already living in the U.S. It also included sanctions on employers who hired undocumented workers, a get-tough policy at the border and a guest-worker program for agricultural workers, which is why the left and community-oriented immigrant rights groups opposed IRCA.

But a few decades later, Republicans--and not a small number of Democrats--would consider Reagan's legislation pro-immigrant radicalism.

Twenty years after IRCA, Republicans in Congress supported an ultra-reactionary bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. The Sensenbrenner bill would have criminalized not only the 11 million or so undocumented workers in the U.S. at the time, but also anyone who assisted them--teachers, social workers and others.

The proposal highlighted the contradictions of immigration for the Republican Party as it tilted away from the needs of business and toward a right-wing electorate.

It was the Sensenbrenner bill that sparked the "mega-marches" of 2006 in which masses of people took to the streets and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of immigrant workers went on strike or stayed away from work on May Day that year.

Even with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, the mass immigrant rights movement stopped the Sensenbrenner bill in its tracks.

In the decade since, Congress wrestled with immigration "reform" proposals that could deliver the goods for business with guest worker programs while throwing in sops to the right, including heavier enforcement on the border.

As activist and journalist David Bacon explained, the immigrant rights movement has for years been divided between grassroots activists on the left and Washington insiders who push "comprehensive immigration reform," or CIR:

The structure of the bills has been basically the same from the beginning--the same three-part structure of IRCA--guest workers, enforcement, and some degree of legalization. Under the CIR proposals promoted by Washington advocacy groups for several years, people working without papers would continue to be fired and even imprisoned, while raids would increase. Vulnerability makes it harder for people to defend their rights, organize unions, and raise wages. That keeps the price of immigrant labor low.

Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago tried to reach a CIR deal with the Republican Tea Party factions in Congress before then-Sen. Jeff Sessions and his allies killed it. But Obama appeased the anti-immigrant forces anyway.

As Marisa Franco and Carlos Garcia point out in the Nation, years before Trump called for a "deportation team" to target "bad hombres," the Obama administration had built "the most sophisticated and well-funded human-expulsion machine in the history of the country." When Trump and Sessions took office, they could hit the ground running.

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TO BE sure, the Trump administration agenda is qualitatively different than Obama's. Rather than simply restrict immigration, Sessions is trying reverse demographic trends in the U.S.

Consciously, or not, the Trump policy parallels that of the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply limited immigration from Europe and virtually banned migrants from Asian countries.

Passed under the right-wing Republican administration of Warren Harding--who foreshadowed Trump with a business-dominated cabinet mired in brazen corruption--the law was a reaction to the wave of industrial struggle during the First World War and the success of the Russian Revolution. As the State Department's website puts it, "In all of its parts, the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity."

Trump, along with adviser Steve Bannon and Sessions, is after something similar today. "For Bannon, Sessions and [Sessions' aide Stephen] Miller, immigration was a galvanizing issue, lying at the center of their apparent vision for reshaping the United States by tethering it to its European and Christian origins," wrote Emily Bazelon in the New York Times.

Thus, as a U.S. senator from Alabama, Sessions supported that state's HB 56, the "Juan Crow" law that forced schools to record the immigration status of students, allowed police to demand immigration documents and made it a crime for individuals or employers to hire, harbor, rent property to or even give a ride to an undocumented immigrant.

Alabama employers protested--especially those in agriculture, food processing and construction. Now, employers across the U.S are wary of similar measures at the national level.

But they may not be able to stop Sessions, whose anti-immigrant program is driven primarily by his ideology and the demands of his political base. And now Trump has taken that model national.

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THE TRUMP-Sessions program puts employers in a contradictory position. As a corporate boss, Trump himself routinely uses immigrant labor even as he calls for restrictions, making the usual claim that his companies can't find U.S. citizens who will do the low-wage work.

Meanwhile, Trump has told the "Dreamers"--undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children--that they can "rest easy" and remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program established by Obama.

Some immigrant rights activists believe DACA could become a template for a guest worker program in which undocumented people are allowed to stay in the U.S. for renewable time limits without any possibility of permanent residency or citizenship.

So the result is a twofold policy. On the one hand, Trump is throwing red meat to the anti-immigrant right by empowering ICE to carry out high-profile raids and order instant deportations and by further militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border. The real aim is "self-deportation," as 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney put it, as an alternative to cost and chaos of mass expulsions.

At the same time, Trump immigration policy would allow business to continue to profit from immigrant workers, even if under less predictable circumstances.

That was the message of Trump's April 18 appearance at Snap-On Tools in Wisconsin, where he announced a "hire American, buy American" campaign and signed an order for a review of the H-1B visa program--even as he attacked Canadian dairy famers dumping cheap imports on the U.S. market.

The H1-B visas, Trump declared in Wisconsin, were a "theft of American prosperity."

Employers are lobbying Trump for an immigration plan that would preserve H1-B workers for tech jobs while creating a "path to legalization" for lower-wage workers--a euphemism for a guest worker program in which immigrants literally become second-class citizens. But unless and until such a program materializes, business will continue to take advantage of the pressure on immigrant workers caused by ICE's intensified operations.

That pressure is growing by the day. Immigrant neighborhoods in cities across the U.S.--mainly Mexican but not exclusively so--are under siege, with many people refusing to answer their doors or leave their homes unless absolutely necessary.

And for good reason: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly said on national television that "a single DUI" could result in deportation.

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THE TRUMP attack on immigrants has put the Democratic Party on the spot. While the Democrats want to craft a pro-employer immigration policy, they must also try relate to their electoral base, which includes millions of immigrant workers.

That's the logic of declaring "sanctuary cities" in big urban centers around the U.S., where Democratic mayors and city councils typically direct local police not to cooperate with ICE. Sessions' Justice Department has pushed hard against this, threatening to withhold federal funds from local governments that don't cooperate with immigration enforcement. So far, the Democrats have not buckled, and the clash is likely to end up in court.

But ICE, of course, doesn't need local cops' permission to carry out arrests and deportations. So the question is how to defend immigrants from this onslaught.

Organized labor, with its unparalleled capacity for collective action, is in a position to do so. In 1999, the AFL-CIO's convention went on record in favor of amnesty for undocumented workers, rejecting the sanctions and guest-worker programs in IRCA and its would-be legislative successors preaching "comprehensive immigration reform."

Since Trump took office, the AFL-CIO has been on record declaring its support for immigrant workers. In February, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka denounced Trump's deportations:

The labor movement will stand proudly and firmly with all local leaders who support workers' rights and prevent exploitation. We know these communities are defending our right to organize to lift standards and cracking down on abusive employers who retaliate against working people. These are core values of the labor movement.

Central labor councils in Los Angeles and Chicago are pouring resources into May Day protests and job actions that will highlight the struggle for immigrant rights.

However, most unions have long since gone quiet on the question of amnesty. In 2009, the AFL-CIO retreated into support for mainstream CIR, folding in behind the Obama administration.

Even more worrisome is that some big unions have tried to cozy up to Trump to benefit from proposed infrastructure jobs and "Buy American" programs. Laborers union General President Terry O'Sullivan told reporters that Trump brought "a new day for the working class," adding that Trump "has shown that he respects laborers who build our great nation, and that they will be abandoned no more."

With that statement, O'Sullivan abandoned the immigrant members of his union--workers he claimed to support when he spoke at the May Day rally in Chicago in 2013.

It's impossible for unions to choose to support Trump on jobs spending while opposing him on immigration. That's why Trump chose to make his announcement on H-1B visas and federal government "Buy American" proposals at the Snap-On Tools plant. It's a single package of economic nationalism in which immigrants are kicked out and jobs go to "native" Americans, preferably those with a European heritage.

The fight for immigrant rights will continue to intensify. Liberals and most union leaders will argue that the only realistic course of action is horse-trading over a boss-friendly guest worker program, with limited workers rights in exchange for accepting greater repression.

It will be up to activists and the left to continue to stand in defense of immigrants and build the solidarity of all working people--no matter what their status.